Review: ‘Bad Boys: Ride or Die’ leaves Will Smith and Martin Lawrence stranded

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At one point in “Bad Boys: Ride or Die,” Miami police detective Mike Lowrey enters a panic attack-induced trance while bullets are flying. There’s only one way out. Martin Lawrence smacks Will Smith in the face not once, not twice, but three times, so that the man with top billing can shake it off and get back to the killing.

Chris Rock is nowhere in sight in this movie. But at that moment, the footage spinning in the audience’s mind alongside what they’re watching is a flashback to the wallopalooza at the 2022 Oscars, when Smith over-avenged a “G.I. Jane” joke emcee Rock made at Jada Pinkett Smith’s expense.

The “Bad Boys” franchise is all about righteous payback, so when Lawrence triple-slaps Smith it’s the two-years-later comeuppance the audience knew would come someday, somehow. If the movie’s about anything other than franchise maintenance in a dark time, it’s about karma. (Lawrence’s character, Marcus Burnett, undergoes a near-death experience and can’t shut up about past lives.) If those slaps are photographed and edited with the artless blunt force and cramped, cellphone-screen-friendly framing of nearly everything else in “Ride or Die,” too bad. Those are matters of technique and finesse, neither of which matters here.

Millions remain loyal to the “Bad Boys” vehicles. They enjoy watching Smith and Lawrence do their thing. I enjoy watching them do their thing. But this time, the thing comes with a little extra strain, sloppier mood swings, a grimmer, more numbing array of slaughter. I wish more of “Ride or Die” were like its final 90 seconds, in which three characters are arguing about who’s going to use the grill. Funny, extraneous, nothing much, but a recent preview screening audience seemed especially grateful for the laughs on the way out. Getting there in a genre mashup this mashed-up — a killer giant-sized albino alligator? Sure, fine — is considerably less than half the fun.

Despite its initially rosy box office projections, now downgraded, “Ride or Die” feels about right for this frankly shaken moment in 2024 moviegoing. Habitual multiplex attendance has been eroded by uneasily merged companies formerly in the business of making movies. Now they’re in the business of figuring out streaming platform survival tactics first, and what to throw in the stream second. The fate of theatrical exhibition runs a distant third.

Still, “Bad Boys: Ride or Die” constitutes an old-fashioned distribution model, the way “Bad Boys for Life” did in early 2020, just before the pandemic. Directors Adil El Arbi and Bilall Fallah, known as Adil & Bilall, return for duty. The script pits our bad men (Smith and Lawrence are a combined 114 years old now; I’m calling them men) against their corrupt Miami law enforcement ranks, mobbed up with drug cartels. Lowrey marries his physical therapist, Christine (Melanie Liburd, who spends much of the film as a battered, anguished hostage); Tasha Smith replaces Theresa Randle as Burnett’s wife, Theresa.

Returning players include Vanessa Hudgens as good cop Kelly, Joe Pantoliano as the late, dream-sequences edition of Capt. Howard; and Jacob Scipio as Lowrey’s son, whose beef with his dad periodically surfaces after Lowrey and Burnett are framed for murder, pursued by every bounty-hunting gang member with a weapon in Florida.

The script constitutes a string of bush-league errors we’re not supposed to care about, starting with the audience getting way, way out ahead of the characters regarding who’s hiding what. Do we go to franchise items like this, or put up with them on the couch, simply for the white-noise reassurance of gunfire, fireballs, trash talk and periodic reminders that, like the “Fast and Furious” movies, it’s all about family? I wonder.

There are other ways to approach a movie like this. How about making it funny when it’s trying to be? “Ride or Die” makes you pathetically grateful for any comic impulse, such as Lowrey and Burnett running into a Confederate flag-waving enclave of yahoo racists and improvising a Reba McEntire song at gunpoint. Smile, cringe, whatever, it provides a break from the generic, arrhythmic action beats, the witless raunch (Tiffany Haddish, wasted in a one-scene cameo), the clinically alluring gun porn.

Directors such as Adil & Bilall, who try everything and nothing matches, might want to check out some ’80s titles for visual and tonal inspiration, starting with Walter Hill’s “48 Hrs.” and Martin Brest’s “Beverly Hills Cop.” Those movies worked, and work still, even if they spun off terrible, heartless sequels. The originals remain super-solid examples of how substantially different action comedies can do justice to both action and comedy. There are more recent examples, but since the nervous 2024 screen economy is stuck in a perpetual time loop with whatever worked before, whether the new script works or not, these two Eddie Murphy ringers are a good place to start.

We can talk plenty about the visual aggravations of “Ride or Die.” But everything has a chance to go fundamentally wrong with a movie long before the first day of filming. If a movie doesn’t care enough about its selling points, aka the stars, to give them decent lines more than twice per hour, the “bad” in “Bad Boys” ends up being the wrong kind of bad. And, in a truly sad way, its own review.

‘Bad Boys: Ride or Die’

1.5 stars (out of 4)

MPA rating: R (for strong violence, language throughout and some sexual references)

Running time: 1:55

How to watch: In theaters June 7

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